Slogans ring out in front of Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge University Church. “Blood on Cambridge, blood on your studies”yells a student in dreadlocks. He is applauded by a dozen of his comrades, who also came to denounce “The long history of Cambridge’s complicity in the abuses of human rights in the countries of the South through colonialism”.
→ READ. “Identities, talk about it without getting angry”, our dossier
With its historic competitor Oxford, Cambridge is considered the elite of the British university. Like it, it is the field of strong societal demands, in particular in recent years on themes qualified as “woke”, coming from the United States and which emphasize the notion of identity. “I ran for election last December for the representative of ethnic and religious minorities of Jesus College’s undergraduates to help other students, as we are in an institution that is not ethnically diverse,” says Imran Mulla, a 19-year-old history student. “University and colleges claim to reflect society, but they don’t, either ethnically or socially. Even if we feel that they are seeking to become more diverse and to be more inclusive. “
As in Oxford, the mobilization of students is complicated by the very organization of studies. Each student is linked to a college. As an undergraduate, he often stayed there, studied in his library, took advantage of its social spaces, and ended up living there most of his time. Although the university oversees the thirty-one colleges of Cambridge, each of them is an independent entity, owner of its buildings and sole decision-maker of the framework of its studies. “As there is no central nervous system, it is difficult to coordinate campaigns”, tells us Amelia Jabry, one of the leaders of the student union at the university level. “It depends a lot on his personal network and the more or less strong involvement of college representatives. “
Jesus College is often put forward for its avant-garde. Besides his activity in favor of minorities, Imran Mulla, explains with pride: “We convinced Jesus College to request the removal of the commemorative plaque in honor of Tobias Rustat, a wealthy 17th century merchant. The college chapel cannot be fully inclusive if it continues to celebrate participants in the slave trade like Rusta and some students felt uncomfortable there. “ The Church of England, responsible for the chapel, has yet to notify its final response. “Our objective is not to erase the past or to question the history of the country, but to explain it”, assures Imran Mulla, short beard and confident voice. “The plaque would be moved to an environment conducive to visits and its replacement in a historical context. “
Restitution of work
Tara Choudhury, 21, the head of ethnic minority issues at the university-level student union, insists “That there is no question of dropping statues”, as was the case with that of a slaveholder in the port of Bristol in June 2020, after the refusal of politicians and local traders to see his role as a slave trader spelled out on a plaque. “We are working with colleges, museums and libraries to not celebrate those linked to the slave trade and see if any items have been stolen overseas. “
Jesus College is at the forefront of this issue. On October 27, it was the first institution in the world to return one of the pieces from its collection stolen by the British army during the sacking at the end of the 19th century of Benin City, in southern Nigeria. In 2016, students voted in favor of its return. “The bronze was then removed and placed in a box before the committee of inquiry into the legacy of slavery, created in 2019, took over, says Swiss sociologist Véronique Mottier, its president. We received the unwavering support of the college and its leader Sonita Alleyne, the first black woman appointed to head a Cambridge college. “ Beyond her own college, she considers that “The university, which had changed little after being completely open to women in the 1970s, undertook a self-critical process unthinkable ten years ago. Even if for some student activists it is not moving fast enough yet. “ A perception perhaps linked to the immutability of the elegant centuries-old freestone buildings in the city center.
While the promotion of women and their safety on campus remains major topics, gender-related themes today seem to be the priorities of the most determined activists. In 2015, the LGBT + branch of the Cambridge student union called for the boycott of Germaine Greer, Australian feminist and former Cambridge student, accused of transphobia, that is to say aversion to transsexuals .
This theme took on a national dimension following the resignation on October 28 of Kathleen Stock from her post as professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. Student protests had multiplied against her since she declared in 2018 that transsexuals had to be distinguished from biological women because of the difference in their personal experiences. A point of view similar to that of Germaine Greer.
“Until recently, these questions were of interest primarily to the transsexual community, while we were caricatured in a sexist and discriminatory way by the tabloids”, remembers Tamsin Blaxter, a 32-year-old transsexual, a former student at Pembroke College who stayed in Cambridge for her university research. “Now, the atmosphere has become much more anxiety-provoking. “
Involved in the cause of transsexuals since 2013, she testifies to having been “Banned from university events because I was not wearing a man’s clothes and I was explicitly the victim of moral harassment”. A time representing LGBT + for her college, she had led campaigns in favor of very concrete changes, such as the establishment of mixed toilets or the possibility of changing one’s gender in university registers.
Campaigns that do not appeal to everyone. Many feminists, like Kathleen Stock and Germaine Green, see these changes officially deployed to prevent transsexuals from being “hurt” psychologically, a dilution of the social gains achieved on behalf of women. Two hundred academics issued a letter of support for the University of Sussex philosophy professor on October 17 condemning “Campus stalker transsexual activists”. In their view, these violate freedom of expression and their actions amount to moral harassment and discrimination. A reactionary movement which does not affect the motivation of the Woke students for the moment.